What Is Quantum Supremacy?

Last week Google made a pretty stark announcement. Google reported that it had achieved something called “quantum supremacy”.  As menacing and totalitarian as that may seem, it’s not quite the sinister achievement it sounds like. In fact, IBM isn’t quite sure this achievement is even all too impressive. So what in the world is this quantum supremacy and why does it even matter to anyone?

Quantum Supremacy?

To explain, let’s review what quantum supremacy is. Many computer enthusiasts are well aware of what a quantum computer is. At the risk of preaching to the choir, I’ll still explain. A classical computer, the ones that run almost the entirety of computation, operate using the classic laws of physics while a quantum computer operates using quantum laws of physics. In essence, this gives quantum computers a much higher computational power with the ability to solve very complex problems very quickly. Quantum supremacy is when one of those quantum computers achieves something no classical computer can. 

quantum-computerOn October 23rd Google did just that. Their quantum computer called “Sycamore” solved a particularly hard problem in 200 seconds. A problem they claimed that IBM’s supercomputer would take 10,000 years to solve. Now IBM, of course, denies that, claiming it could be solved in two and a half days. Until IBM runs their computer with the same problem, we may never know, however it may be a moot point since Google’s quantum computer will only get faster, bigger and better. The reality of quantum computing may not make sense to a lot of non-physicists, but what does make sense is their ability to process information in a highly efficient and quick fashion. Already, Google is solving complex problems with an early version of a quantum computer– in a few years, they’ll be able to do much more. This begs the question, what is the whole point of a quantum computer and what can they do?

What Can Quantum Computers Do?

Well here’s the short answer– they could solve unanswered phenomena, help in new study and research, and maybe even help in the cure of cancer and other diseases. In a less theoretical field of possibilities are cyber-security and crypto-analysis. Quantum computers may never make it into our homes or pockets but that’s only because that’s not what they’re designed to do. Quantum computers are like an airplane and classical computers are the car. One is good for daily commutes of short to medium distances, while the other is perfect for quick travel over long distances. These machines are designed for supersonic flight and Google’s achievement last week was the Wright brothers’ first flight. Once they develop further, we will see all sorts of problems being solved, but there will also be problems caused.

IBM-quantum-computerWith the advance of computational power, quantum computers bring the ability to completely destroy the code of our day to day electronics. We’re talking Python, JavaScript, C#, the very core building blocks of our everyday technology. If they achieve this, cybersecurity like we know today can completely disappear. If a bad actor were to achieve quantum supremacy, they would, in theory, be able to access the entire internet’s library of data. For this exact reason, the US Government has a close eye on this tech and is developing its own version for defense. 


It’s quite impressive that we have reached a point in our society where we can manipulate the fabric of our universe in a way to create a quantum computer. It’s even more impressive that one company has achieved the goal of quantum supremacy. What’s less impressive is that we’re playing with fire. Much like AI, quantum computers may be an innovation that leaves us worse off. In the right hands, we can solve decades-old mysteries about the universe, cancer, and mechanical phenomena. In the wrong hands, the destruction of our very basis of electronic existence may be widespread and universal. What’s for sure is quantum supremacy is a word we will be talking a lot about and hoping it’s all in a positive light.

2 thoughts on “What Is Quantum Supremacy?”

  1. Incredible story about Quantum Computer development. I am 92 and switched from ham radio
    to computers as my main interest when we were still using CPM as our main operating system.
    I still run a web site for my Merchant Marine Veterans here on the west coast. ammvgoldengate.org I intend to hang around as long as I possible can and who knows that
    Quantum computer may let me stay a little longer. I imagine its a little too early for that but
    we shall see. About the possible acquisition by “bad guys”. Seems like life on this earth of ours gets more dangerous all the time. I suppose our founders said that back in 1776 however.
    The best to you. Bob

  2. I quibble with your definition of QS. It does not mean that quantum computers can solve problems which are impossible in principle for standard computers to solve. It means that it is physically possible to construct a quantum computer (solving issues of decoherence and entanglement precision) which can then solve very hard problems many orders of magnitude faster than a standard computer could, using the principles of quantum physics.

    I don’t think anyone argues that quantum mechanics, if usable in computers as entangled logic gates, could vastly speed up the solution of certain (not all) types of problems, but some people do argue that it will be physically impossible to make such computers which operate reliably, and contain enough quantum gates (composed of “qubits”) to do large problems. The Google lab result is a step in that direction, but the device they made could not itself do much except generate random sequences for use by standard computers–as I understand it, based on Scott Aaronson’s blog posts.

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